If future historians are kind to George W. Bush, they will judge his presidency more in the context of his times than by his blunders and triumphs. Their verdict may still be harsh, but they could soften it by considering that the task of governing America is now so big and complex that it is difficult for one person to handle it without making major mistakes.
A modern president's plate is too stacked with demands, posing a threat of burnout or miscue. Barack Obama, after receiving his first CIA briefing about hot spots, reportedly said (hopefully in jest): "Why would anyone want this job?" No wonder he ran on "hope."
Today's presidents begin humbly but often resort to hubris to deal with overwhelming challenges, from terrorism to healthcare to global warming. Mr. Bush bit off more than he could chew in Iraq (although the "surge" may yet save his goals). To prevent a second Sept. 11 – quite an achievement – he interpreted the Constitution in odd ways. He was so fixed on fighting terror that he allowed the biggest budgetary expansion since FDR.
Bush tried to reform education with mandatory testing but it took a 670-page law and made teachers testy. While he warned of housing problems early on, he didn't prevent a busting of that bubble. Finally, he had to jettison his free-market mantra to avoid a financial market meltdown.
The late Harvard scholar Richard Neustadt once warned president-elects that they "are almost bound to overestimate the power that will soon be theirs." And the late historian Samuel Huntington said the US has been so overloaded with social demands since the 1960s that it is increasingly "ungovernable." A 2006 CNN poll found 58 percent of parents do not want their children to grow up to be president.
America isn't quite unmanageable yet, but signs point toward it. The political tribalism so evident in Washington is rampant in California. A recent Los Angeles Times article suggested the state can't be governed because it "is so oversized, Balkanized and polarized that it is destined for dysfunction no matter who is in charge." New York State is not far behind.
Congress, where the buck doesn't stop, defers most tough decisions to the executive branch. Presidents often enter the Oval Office only to be overwhelmed by surprises. For Bush, Sept. 11 was his shocker.
The job of president is simple: to uphold the Constitution. But even George Washington admitted in his farewell address that he "may have committed many errors." A shoe-ducking Bush has not been so humble, despite record low polls for an outgoing president. For his sake, however, a president's legacy down the ages is not determined by the polls of his day (Truman being one example).
Leon Panetta, Mr. Obama's nominee for head of the CIA and a former White House chief of staff, told a reporter last year that the next president "is going to face a set of crises that no president has had to face in modern times." Those who would judge Bush harshly may want to think first of how Obama will fare in four or eight years. The more Obama has learned of what he faces, the more he backpedals on his campaign rhetoric.
In a less-trying age, Bush might have been a better president. Given these times, historians may see him with a forgiving eye.